Hainan Island: from exile to idyll

Hainan Island is being rapidly transformed from an isolated outpost to the next desirable destination for holidaymakers, but are the new developments following sustainable development practices, asks Hannah Gardner

China’s most southerly province, Hainan Island, was once a place of exile for political prisoners and disgraced officials. Separated from mainland China by the Qiongzhou Strait in the north, most of the 34,000sq km island sits on the same latitude as Vietnam. Jutting out into the South China Sea and far away from China’s centres of power, successive emperors deemed the island, with its tropical climate and sometimes turbulent weather, to be a place of punishment.

Fast forward a few hundred years and China’s Communist government is promoting Hainan as an island paradise that aims to compete with established destinations such as Bali or Hawaii by the end of the decade. The 2010-2020 Hainan International Tourism Island Development Plan, announced by China’s central government two years ago, plans to boost annual visitor numbers to the island to 77m in the next 10 years, up from around 30m today.

But as well as attracting more tourists, the central government has also pledged to preserve Hainan’s unique ecology, saying the island will act as an example of sustainable development for China and the world.“Hainan can’t do without sunshine, beaches, green water and mountains if it wants development—ecology is Hainan's life,” Hainan’s governor Luo Baoming told Chinese media last year.

Yet while no one doubts that the government is sincere in its desire to create a sustainable world-class holiday destination, the reality on the ground is somewhat different . Part of the government’s drive to turn Hainan into an international holiday hotspot also included announcing its intention to invest tens of billions dollars in the island’s infrastructure—airports, roads, ports and a rail link—which has led to an enormous construction boom.


According to the Hainan Tourism Development Research Association, there are now over 250 star-rated hotels on the island with 30 five-star hotels appearing in the past two years. The president of the association, Wang Jian-Sheng, says 10,000 rooms came online since the beginning of 2010 and 10,000 more are likely to hit the market this year. “It’s actually impossible to keep count of how many rooms we have,” he says. “Development is too fast here. Hotels are appearing every day.”

But while investors have moved fast on Hainan, the government has been less quick and there is little in the way of laws—apart from those that regulate all industries on the island—to ensure that the new developments are built in a sustainable manner.

Green Hotelier spoke to numerous groups with resorts on the island, all of whom said waste reduction and water and energy-saving schemes are voluntary at the moment and there are no financial incentives or regulations—other than appealing to green-minded customers—to implement them.

Of course, given China’s political system, that could all change rapidly and there are signs that the government may be about to start getting strict with hotels that break existing pollution and zoning laws in Hainan, according to Liu Weili, the president for design & technical services for Starwood Hotels in Asia. “The government actually has quite good codes on paper but the implementation is weak. Traditionally the government is relaxed when they need growth and they tighten up when things start to overheat,” he says.

Grassroots action

In the meantime, some hotel groups—both international and local—have taken it upon themselves to implement sustainable practices in the hope that others might learn from their example.

Starwood, which has the biggest presence on the island with seven hotels, has committed to a 30% reduction in its energy use by 2020 and a 20% cut in its water use by the same year as part of its global plan to reduce its environmental footprint.
Starwood’s Le Meridien Shimei Bay Beach & Spa Resort, for example, has employed a number of energy-efficient and water-saving measures, says its general manager Richard Li. These include replacing all lamps with energy-efficient alternatives, using grey water for WC flushing and irrigating the gardens, and the installation of low-flow restrictors on all taps in guest bathrooms.

The resort is also helping the local community by maintaining roads in nearby villages and donating books and money to primary schoolchildren, and it hopes to soon source its fresh produce and seafood locally not only to reduce its “food miles” but also to provide a sustainable income to local farmers and fishermen.

The Zhejiang Narada Hotel Group, a Chinese company that owns and manages four developments on the island, including the new mixed-project Narada Resort & Spa at Perfume Bay, has fitted each of its nearly villas with solar panels to heat water for the shower and Jacuzzi. The resort is also using its grey water to irrigate its extensive gardens and has planted trees throughout the property and along the coast.

All of the resort’s fruit and vegetables come from farms less than 10km away. It also promotes the use of locally sourced honey and coffee to avoid the carbon emissions that come from importing items from Europe or coffee from Brazil. “The way I see it is win-win. The guests get to try something new, which enhances their experience and we have reduced our carbon footprint,” says Nicolas Solari, general manager of Narada Resort & Spa Perfume Bay on Hainan.


But despite all of Narada’s efforts so far, few people seem to be interested in learning from their experience. Hainan’s international general managers established a committee to liaise with the island’s government a few years ago but foreign hotel groups say there has been little interest from the Chinese side to visit their resorts and learn from their experiments.

One senior executive in the hospitality industry with responsibility for hotels in Asia said international chains needed to form a similar committee to liaise with China’s national government so they can present their concerns and lobby for tighter environmental laws. “Water flows the path of least resistance," said the source, who preferred to remain unnamed. “If there are laws, then it stops being a case of management companies having to convince the hotel owner to follow best practices, they will just have to.”

He and others also said sustainable tourism practices might be more widely employed here if international hotel management were involved in the hotel-opening process much earlier on. Because all hotels in places such as Hainan are Chinese-owned, often the management group only sees the design after it has been completed and funding secured. If the building has not been designed with sustainability in mind, as is often the case in China, it is hard at that stage to go back and persuade the owner to make changes.

Other people in the industry say hotels in Hainan could be encouraged to improve their ecological credentials if China’s National Tourism Administration integrated its star-rating system with its “Green Leaf” awards system. Currently only a handful of hotels have applied for Gold or Silver leaves, which award hotels for initiatives such as energy efficiency, use of locally sourced food and abandoning the use of wasteful disposable wooden chopsticks. Not one hotel on the island has an international green award.

Greenpeace's main concern for the island focuses on its forests. In September 2010, the environmental group published a report saying resorts were stripping the coast of the pine trees that have traditionally protected the island against typhoons and tsunamis in order to offer guests sea views, or replacing them with more “tropical”-looking palm trees.

The group also warns that the rainforests inland, which are home to clouded leopards and the critically endangered black-crested gibbon, are being illegally logged or cleared for industrial-scale farms or golf courses. “There are laws to prevent these things from happening,” says Yi Lan, forest campaigner at Greenpeace. “But the government does not enforce them.” As well as the government upholding its laws, she says hotels should be forced to carry out and publish Environment Impact Assessments before they are given permission to build.


While it is true that the government has done little to make others follow green principles, it has been steadily improving its own performance. The province now processes more of its waste than any other—a huge improvement from a few years ago—and it has begun a pilot recycling programme for paper and glass with 30 hotels, local media has reported.

Hainan is also aiming to burn 300m fewer tonnes of coal a year but it is doing so by building a second nuclear power plant on the island. Sewage treatment levels are also some of the highest in the country, state media has reported.

Government officials privately concede there is much more that could be done but there is the feeling that Hainan is on the right road. “The central government and the world is watching us,” says Wang Jian-Sheng of the Hainan Tourism Development Research Association. “We simply cannot fail.”

Hannah Gardner is a freelance journalist based in Beijing, China. She has written for national newspapers, including the UK’s The Times and Abu Dhabi's The National.

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